The Mulroney defence

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When the federal government wanted to investigate former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in connection with pay-offs around the purchase of Airbus aircraft, Mulroney launched a libel suit, and negotiated an out-of-court settlement in his favour with the government. He later confessed to receiving cash payments from Karl Heinz Schreiber, the Airbus paymaster, related not to Airbus but to other business dealings.

Now Prime Minister Stephen Harper has invoked the Mulroney defence. He is suing the Liberal Party of Canada over allegations that attempts were made by Conservative party officials, with the knowledge of Harper, to entice MP Chuck Cadman with "financial considerations" to vote to bring down the Martin government following debate over the 2005 budget.

Harper, however, has put a special twist on the Mulroney defence. Unlike Mulroney, who sued first and confessed later, Harper confessed first (on tape to knowing of Conservative party operatives meeting with the dying MP and discussing financial considerations with the dying MP) and sued later.

That a sitting prime minister would file a libel suit to stifle criticism by the official opposition of comments he made on tape âe" that have been played, and heard across the country âe" is, on the surface, astonishing.

On the other hand, if the prime minister is attempting not just libel chill, but to forestall police action against himself, for an offence under article 119 of the criminal code that covers bribery of public officials, the suit makes sense, of a sort. Call it a desperate measure, in the faint hope that the authorities will decide the prime minister would not dare to sue, if he knew he could be convicted of a crime, and go to jail âe" bribery being an indictable offence, carrying a maximum of 14 years in prison.

Should this libel action go to court, the prime minister will be called to testify on the record about what he knew and how he knew it, with respect to financial considerations being offered to Cadman. In short he will be asked in court to deny he is a criminal by lawyers for the Liberal Party.

This is a more serious matter than being accused of wrong doing in parliament. As well, the prime minister will have to claim that Chuck Cadman lied to his family when the MP talked about receiving, and refusing, an offer to pay premiums on a life insurance policy worth one million dollars. And Harper had better hope the case is not heard in British Columbia, where Cadman is known to be an honest man.

And then there is the testy question of who has been doing the defaming since Harper became the leader of the Conservative party. Maybe the prime minister thinks Canadians have were not paying attention when the Conservatives claimed then Prime Minister Paul Martin was a supporter of child pornography. And how about the Conservative party ads that have been rolled out regularly at a cost of millions of dollars claiming that Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has mislead Canadians, acted in a cowardly fashion, and showed himself incapable of leadership?

After introducing negative advertising to Canada with ads depicting Jean Chrétien with a facial deformity, and being forced to pull the ad campaign in the face of marked public displeasure, the old Reform Party bunch âe" who first morphed into the Canadian Alliance, and then cloaked themselves in the garb of the Conservative Party of Canada âe" obviously still believe you win when you destroy the reputation of your adversary. Otherwise they would have never undertaken the wholly unsavory campaign to discredit Stéphane Dion, simply because they had the money, and judged it good politics.

Unhappily, they may be right. But Dion has broken no law, and committed no crime. His party is being sued for libel because its leader and other members have asked the prime minister to explain, "exactly what financial considerations were offered to Chuck Cadman?"

In the main, the Liberals have relied on Harper's own words in formulating their questions.

At this point the opposition should be asking the prime minister to step down until such time as the police and prosecutors have finished their enquiries on the Cadman file, or have declared that they find no grounds for exploring the alleged bribery.

Should the police decide not to proceed, the prime minister should step aside, until such time as his lawsuit has been settled in the courts. It is truly unacceptable in a parliamentary democracy for a prime minister who wields enormous power, even in a minority situation, to expect to have access to the courts âe" as sitting prime minister âe" to deal with political opponents, and continue at the same time to exercise power not only to frame legislation, but to name judges, and oversee the administration of justice in the name of the Crown.

If Stephen Harper believes he has been wronged, and must be compensated under the law of libel for this to be generally known and his reputation restored, then he should resign his position as prime minister of his own volition, until such time as he has âe" or has not âe" been awarded damages by the court.

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